I hope to one day be clairvoyant. For now, I’ll settle for seeing accurately. Philosopher William Barrett understood that “it is the familiar that usually eludes us in life.” I have found a literal lens for seeing the familiar, and paid a price for it. It cost me a broken heart. I purchased a camera with money I’d meticulously saved to pay for a honeymoon with a girl I thought I would marry. Weeks before our wedding day, the wedding was called off. Instantly, life was terribly out of focus. I felt disoriented, like a man in between sleep and waking. To find my bearings, I decided to spend my sexy stash on something that might help me find catharsis—on something that might rescue my shadowy heart. I never would have imagined a camera could retrieve me from despair, but that is exactly what happened. The fresh perspective instilled in me the ability and challenge to adjust my life’s lens, to find the joy and beauty surrounding us all. All from a camera.
While life was out of focus, I found clarity looking through my new lens. Small details took on large proportions. Flowers on the side of a dusty road filled the frame beautifully. A broken-down car parked in a vacant lot felt like a metaphor for a minute, but adjusting the lens afforded me a different focus: the Jesus Saves sticker in perfect white against a rusted bumper. Better metaphor. I snapped shots incessantly. The world looked so different to me now.
As my ability to adjust the lens increased, I began booking jobs. Small perspectives: a book cover, beauty pageant portfolios, and national print and Internet ads for a fitness apparel line, culminating in the opportunity of putting on an entire collection at an art gallery. I spent long, drawn-out time adjusting my aperture and shutter speed for varying depths of field. My perspective was changing. I was seeing the small of life and feeling bigger than ever before. I was getting exposure because I was capturing details that often go unnoticed because they feel so familiar.
Little about Vietnam felt familiar. I was asked to accompany a charitable organization to Vietnam to document their trip visually and to help manually. A shantytown outside of Hue captured my heart. Not at first—all I could see was dingy buildings, unpalatable food, and depravity. I was face to face with poverty; she wasn’t pretty at all. My bout with heat stroke almost kept me from seeing the truth. It wasn’t until I carried packages of uniforms, books, and crayons down a sandy path, only to be greeted by singing, dancing village children whose faces underscored their song that I began to adjust my lens. Children who were worn, but not worn out inspired me. They found happiness amid rubble. Their laughter was true, and their smiles authentic. Crayons colored their world. With so little, they loved so much. I was seeing what Vietnam had to offer—it was bountiful. The children were the single object I focused on through the lens of a camera, the surrounding objects began to blur. I saw each of their stories. I was starting to understand my mother’s mantra, “People, not projects” in a way I never had before. I was seeing life in macro. I was seeing life with new eyes.
When my daughter was born, I distinctly remember holding her chubby frame and seemingly angry scowl thinking to myself, ‘What am I going to do as a father!?’ It’s a daunting dialogue to honestly have with yourself: How do I become the dad I am meant to be? What does that dad look like? What do my children deserve from me? It is a critical, but careful conversation. I resolved that I might not readily understand or define my parenting at any one given time, I would always commit to learning, adjusting, growing. It’s like the adage: It is never too late to decide how your story will end.
The first time my daughter blew through her diaper, an experience requiring a hazmat suit and a disaster clean up crew, I went into a sort of panic I had never experienced. Here was my little girl, with a big problem. I couldn’t figure out the order of things: diaper, change of clothes, wipes, binky, comforting her, comforting me, comforting the poor elder man sitting in the booth next to us. I just wanted to hold my daughter up in the air and scream for some assistance! “Clean up on aisle 3!” It was all a mess. In recapping the story to my mom, she commented, “Gosh, imagine how traumatic that was on her.” Her observation took me back. What was this whole situation like for her? Imagine what I looked like through her beautiful brown eyes: Sweaty, panicky daddy frantically dumping out a diaper bag on the table searching for relief. It was not a pretty picture. No wonder she was so upset! This little change in perspective yielded an impressive life lesson: being a dad may require changing how you look at yourself and those you love- and that's okay.
The ability to adjust my lens has greatly impacted my ability to parent. Often times I’ll physically adjust my point of view, crawling around on the floor with my kiddos, seeing the world from their vantage point. When my toddler cries in pain and is unable to communicate where their pain originates, or when tears fall down the cheeks of their sweet face, frustrated with some immediate loss in their life, I have to take a minute and put myself in their shoes. People often ask what’s it like having kids, have I lost myself in parenting, have I forgotten who I used to be for this new role as a parent? It’s hard to communicate to those without children how having children fundamentally shifts your focus, adjusts your lens, and affords you the opportunity to reevaluate yourself and your priorities.
The task then is familiarizing oneself with the tools to refocus, adjusting the aperture and shutter speed of life to see how you can best help your kids. For me, the best way to adjust my lens is by asking questions, lots of questions: “Why are you doing that?” “Explain the rules of this game to me.” “What does that taste like?” “How does that make you feel?” This dialogue with my kids give me the chance to see the small in life, the stuff that I forget or am too busy to fully appreciate, and it’s beautiful and big and brilliant.
Clairvoyant? No. Not yet. But, I am seeing more clearly now than ever before. Some days, if life appears hazy, I don’t panic. I know that life out of focus requires adjustments. So I breathe deep and look for the details. I talk with my kids. I investigate their insight, their point of view. Sure enough, I find beauty in the small, seemingly insignificant particulars. I find beauty in the familiar. I know by now that the key to a successful photograph, developed in the lab or throughout one’s lifetime, is learning how and when to adjust the lens.